Robert Duncan

Can’t Buy Me Love: Robert Duncan and the Poetics of Communal Love

I’ve titled this section after the famous Beatles song, not because there is an intertext between Robert Duncan and the Beatles (if there is, I haven’t found it), but because it is a major feature of Duncan’s Passages series of poems, a series that punctuates his well-known collection, Bending the Bow and his final work, Ground Work, to envision love as an outside of currency, economy, and transaction. He achieves this, in his poetry, through his incessant and at times troubling use of intertext, requiring that in order to navigate or make sense of Duncan’s stealing from other texts, all the reader really needs is love. I anticipate that, in the culture of detached, scholarly work, such a claim reads as laughable, but I maintain that a politics of love is the driving force behind the Passages series. Before I discuss how love factors into Duncan’s poetry and his poetics, the fact that such a claim feels out-of-place or discredited in literary studies merits some discussion. I have called the scholarly work behind the study of literature detached, and in doing so have made an observation of the utmost importance to my claim; that is, the emotionally detached nature of literary criticism (largely a patriarchal political nature predicated on the fact that sentiment, characterised by the emotions of love, empathy, and care is typically associated with the feminine) leads scholarly work to ignore these emotions in favour of objectivity, thought, and reason.

It is this observation that leads Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, in the final instalment of their Empire trilogy, Commonwealth, to observe that, in philosophy, theory, and even literary criticism, “[w]hat is missing is love” (179).  Hardt and Negri claim that “[l]ove has been so charged with sentimentality that it seems hardly fit for philosophical and much less political discourse” (179). Instead, they assert that the normative assumption is that philosophers should “[l]eave it to the poets to speak of love” (179). And indeed, throughout his poetry and his non-fiction, Duncan speaks of love incessantly, but not with the kind of lower-case-r romantic zeal associated with the poet. Rather, Duncan articulates a politics of love strikingly similar to the one Hardt and Negri discuss decades later. That is, for Hardt and Negri, as for Duncan, “love is not, as it is often characterized, spontaneous or passive. It does not simply happen to us as if it were an event that mystically arrives from elsewhere. Instead, it is an action … planned and realized in common” (180). Also like Duncan, Hardt and Negri condemn an identitarian love (a love of the same, if I may borrow from Irigaray), remarkably similar to Duncan’s condemnation of the contemporaneous gay-rights movement in “The Homosexual and Society.” Instead, Hardt and Negri advocate a politics of love that “composes singularities, like themes in a music store, not in unity but as a network of social relations” (184). Thus, a politics of love would entail the search for similarities (as opposed to the differences sought out in an identitarian politics), and would privilege all singularities equally.

Duncan’s poetry and poetics, in light of this politics of love, becomes a search for a commonality, for equality, and for an ethics of love that values each incarnation not for its artistic, but its emotional value. Suddenly Duncan’s preoccupation with minutae becomes less an aesthetic decision and more a political one, and in this politics, language is crucial. As Stephen Collis notes in his essay, “A Duncan Etude: Dante and Responsibility,” for Duncan, “language is the commons: we all have equal rights to enter there – permission to return to the common source.” Collis goes on to observe, as I have quoted previously, that for Duncan the language of poetry occupies an important place in this language of the common: “Poetry is a gift of the givenness of language and no poet holds property rights over it, but owes it his or her service and responsibility. Poetry is radically communal, and the modernist development of collage – the quoting poem parading its ‘reading-writing’ – is one expression of this.” Thus Duncan, in his Passages series, moves freely from source text to his own, misquoting, paraphrasing, and refusing citation in order to foreground the inability to own language, despite the discourses of intellectual property; language is inherently communal.

Anne Day Dewey, in her article “Creeley, Duncan, and the Uses of Abstraction,” makes clear the links between Duncan’s poetry, language, and love. Dewey postulates a “lovers’ common ‘language of daily life’” as “the creative centre from which cosmic order ‘expands,’ redefining the new natural order grounded in the lovers’ harmony” (106). This “private speech community” reinvigorates language with love and with sameness that “gives language new meaning” (106). But, this appears to be largely as aesthetic choice, again, until one considers Dewey’s claim that, for Duncan, “love is the source of change” (104). Moreover, Dewey claims, “[t]his changing perception of language implies a shift in the conception of the public sphere that poetry addresses” (112). Thus it becomes extremely important that, in a footnote to “The Homosexual in Society,” Duncan claims that “[t]he principal point is that the creative genius of a writer lies in his [sic] communication of personal experience as a communal experience” (45). As the personal becomes communal, the poetic becomes political, inciting the reader to relinquish the identitarian politics of difference in favour of a new politics of empathy.

This rejection of identitarian politics is integral to Duncan’s poetics and politics of love. Michael Palmer sees it clearly enacted in Duncan’s work when he writes in the introduction to Ground Work that the “[f]orces formed within the Ego … must be channelled toward the obliteration (or else possible overcoming) of that ‘I’ or self” (x). In “The Homosexual and Society,” Duncan makes clear the link between this poetic choice and its political implications, writing that “only one devotion can be held by a human being seeking a creative life and expression, and that is a devotion to human freedom, toward liberation of human love, human conflicts, human aspirations. To do this one must disown all the special groups (nations, churches, sexes, races) that would claim allegiance” (47).  As such, even Duncan’s most overt claims for what we would call gay-rights do not fit into such an identitarian category. Duncan’s gay-rights movement is not concerned with rights, neither is it particularly concerned with the subject position of the gay man. Instead, these overt political statements are driven, more than anything else, by love. “Love is dishonored,” he writes, “where sexual love between those of the same sex is despised; and where love is dishonored there is no public trust” (49).

By shifting the focus of this statement from the identity politics of the gay man in those gay-rights movements he condemns, and towards the love itself (sexual love between members of the same sex, communal love for all individuals), Duncan enacts precisely the kind of politics of love that Hardt and Negri would later posit. “What we are looking for – and what counts in love –” they insist at the end of their chapter on love, “is the production of subjectivity and the encounter of singularities which compose new assemblages and constitute new forms of the common” (186). Ultimately, Duncan’s politics look to compose these new assemblages of love, just as the Passages series of poems looks to create new assemblages as well – new assemblages of readers, of texts, and between the poems themselves. In the sections that follow, I will examine this politics and poetics of communal love, looking at the various ways in enacts itself in the Passages sequence.

It gets articulated, first and foremost, in Duncan’s process of reading-writing, a writing-through process somewhat similar to those used by John Cage and Jackson Mac Low in my previous sections on each author. Duncan envisions his text as being situated in a discursive practice where language is held in common, and all texts are innately joined in “new assemblages” and that work towards articulating “new forms of the common.” With the incessant and often troubling use of quotation, borrowing, and a kind of “plagiarism[i]” that litters the Passages sequence, Duncan argues that texts exist in bonds with each other, and that in this sharing they demonstrate the same communality and public love/trust that he articulates in his politics. It is this “plagiarism” that I will discuss in my next section. Subsequently, my plateaus on Duncan will look to the expressions of this poetics/politics of love in terms of Duncan’s aversion to “integration,” his comprehensions of the role of the subject (both of the reader and the writer) in the text, his explicit anarcho-pacifism, and, finally, his insistence on active readership and his assertion that his poetry directly invites such activity.


[i] As I will discuss in my entry next week, the use of the term plagiarism in my work is inherently problematic because, in order for there to be “plagiarism,” there must also be concomitant conceptions of intellectual property, copyright, and some designation of the ownership of language. This, of course, runs counter to Duncan’s argument that language, and especially poetic language, is held in common and that we all, as readers and writers, have equal rights to it. I use the term still because it demonstrates the degree to which Duncan’s project runs counter to the dominant ideologies of intellectual property and language rights of juridical discourses both when he wrote, and when I do.

8 thoughts on “Can’t Buy Me Love: Robert Duncan and the Poetics of Communal Love

  1. In any art, can we really have emotional values without artistic ones? The two can arguably be separated, but the latter does encompass the former. Or, when you oppose these in the third paragraph, do you mean “citational” rather than “artistic”? And is this what you mean that readers only “need love” to approach Duncan’s work, that they don’t need to know his artistic sources? I feel like your phrasing could also be interpreted as meaning that readers need to love the language / the commons, in order to get Duncan’s aesthetic and emotional resonances: ie, “you need to know your canon to get what I’m saying here.” It’s almost an ambivalent gesture: both citing and refusing the ownership claims of the “original” poet. I’ve been thinking about the act of quotation recently, and I’m not sure if I buy the argument that quotation/collage is automatically a communal act—it seems often to function as an exclusionary gesture. Of course, Duncan’s misquoting gesture throws a bit of a wrench into the works, although it still relies on the recognition of the misquotation for it to work fully.

    I’m also not sure if I buy the idea of literary criticism being emotionless (para 1): what about the endless pursuit of “tone”? Granted, the language around tone is certainly not as formalized or specific, indicating that pinpointing how it works hasn’t been an academic priority. But then again, what about Barthes’ Lover’s Discourse?

    And as for the paragraph invoking Hardt and Negri, I’m afraid I don’t quite follow, not being familiar with the phrase “identitarian love” or the challenges to it. Is it “a love of the same,” a search for differences, or a phrase connected to identity politics? I’d also like to hear a bit more about H&N’s politics of love here, or at least a promise that it’ll be addressed more fully later: you give us some of the goods further down, but I find it hard to follow when it’s first referenced.

    • 1) We’ve talked about this a lot, but I also find the exclusionary potentials of Duncan’s borrowing troublesome. The best rationale I have (and I grounded this in an interview passage I can no longer seem to find…) is that we consider these referenced (or unreferenced references) as lines of flight (a la Deleuze) away from the text. They don’t really work to form a cohesive whole, and you can take the text in wonderful and gratifying ways without, y’know, having read Boehme or whatever.

      2) I tend to think that “tone” and how a text conveys or expresses an emotion is quite different from affect. Sure, affect is garnering some good attention these days, but I think it’s valuable to note that the experimental text is not often considered for its affective merits in the same way as, say, a Dickens novel. Which is interesting because I also think that the experiment has a more direct affective relationship to the reader than its narrative/content based counterparts.

      3) I dead with the H&N stuff earlier. I’ll link to it and flesh it out more directly later. Thanks!

  2. You repeatedly deal with “love” – love in Cage, jouissance and enjoyment in Mac Low, and now love again with Duncan (with some Hardt and Negri thrown in). I wonder if the repetition of love is a cornerstone of your approach and, if so, how love can be incorporated into postanarchist literary criticism and your coinage of the extrasemantic? Having each of these fold into each other can become a dominant methodological tool kit that can be foregrounded at the beginning of the diss and deployed throughout. I still think that “love” needs to be explicitly defined … somehow … in relation to the experimental avant-garde – this feels key to me.

    • You’re right. This definition of love as post anarchist has been eluding me, and I always worrying about nailing it down. I always understood it as flux. At least, I understood it that way because I took it that way from Hardt and Negri.

      I absolutely agree that a larger and more clearly defined section on love needs to be at the beginning of this project. But, I also think I might only fully understand it once I get to the end.

  3. First off, I’ll admit that I’m very happy to be able to converse (even electronically) about Duncan. So, remember that I can fall into “fanboy” comments about his work….

    I think Sean’s question about love is very useful. As I was reading along, I was trying to think about how Duncan might define your use of the term. I think love is useful if we consider it a cluster of several allied responses (and I think “responses” or “stances” might be more helpful that emotion, which you’ve cleverly avoided in your post). So, for Duncan (and it would be different for everyone), “love” would seem to be a node where eros (desire), eris (strife), charitas (love of the divine), and communitas (the spirit of community) intersect (though, reallly, there are probably a myriad of other stances there, too, for Duncan). But, if we think of love as that which draws you to another (eros) while acknowledging and allowing for difference (eris) and provoking and flowing from a sense of the divine (in Duncan’s non-anthropomorphic sense) and allowing and driving community, that seems in keeping with Duncan’s sensibilities.

    I do have a few challenges for you, too: you say that “even Duncan’s most overt claims for what we would call gay-rights do not fit into such an identitarian category. Duncan’s gay-rights movement is not concerned with rights, neither is it particularly concerned with the subject position of the gay man”; I think you might overstate what you mean here. I would argue that Duncan takes rights as an organic given, a given that should never be limited by another. In that sense, then, it’s not that he isn’t concerned with rights, but that his concern is for everyone’s rights, not just homosexuals. Would you agree, or does that misconstrue Duncan’s organicism?

    Also, I don’t know about “plagiarism.” I take your points in the footnote as completely valid… but, as you suggest, the term’s entrenching of ownership is problematic (so I guess that problem is more fundamental to me than it is to you). I wonder if a term like “expropriation” might work better? If we take Duncan at his word, he expects others to rework his poetry, and so Duncan’s borrowing/stealing can also be viewed as a way of placing lost elements back into the intellectual commons, of resuscitating ideas/words that have been forgotten by readers and giving them new life.

    • 1) Fanboy away!

      2) Yes, I will need an introductory plateau on love that will work through these issues. But, as I’m still having a really hard time writing my plateau on violence, that will have to wait. I do really like this idea of love as a “cluster of several allied responses,” though. In this sense, love is not just constituted by the common/multiple, it is also made up of that same multiplicity.

      3) I think my aversion is to the word “rights” itself, which to me just reeks of a juridico-legislative system that is dependent on the production of clearly delineated subjectivities and the overcoding of bodies. What is an organic given, for me, is therefore not a “right.” I notice in overtly political essays like “The Homosexual in Society” that Duncan never uses the word, at least not in a manner that suggests something important or that a body deserves. But I also know that he does use the term occasionally to refer to egalitarian access to the common (everyone has equal right to enter there, yadda yadda yadda). Do you happen to know of anywhere where he might directly address the issue of “rights” as such?

      4) I think expropriation is an excellent term for what Duncan does, but I also feel a personal desire to add it to plagiarism rather than remove the latter completely. I guess I just really like the idea of discussing plagiarism in a way that foregrounds how Duncan’s work still directly contests contemporary intellectual property issues. But, as I still have A LOT of reading to do in the world of copy and intellectual property, and as you are the big boss, if you want me to change it I will.

      • I am “the big boss”? I only hope that absolute power corrupts me absolutely….

        I don’t think you have to change “plagiarism,” but be prepared for some hostility in response to that term. I think if, as you do in the note, you explain how you mean it and why you think it’s relevant, you should be fine. But that is probably a decision for the final draft of the dissertation.

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